Honolulu, HI – Today, the National Marines Fisheries Service (“NMFS”) finally acknowledged the devastating toll that the Hawai‘i-based longline fishing fleet inflicts on the Hawai‘i population of false killer whales, formally classifying the longline fleet as “Category I” in the List of Fisheries for 2004, a designation reserved for fisheries that annually kill and seriously injure marine mammals at unsustainable rates. In November 2003, Turtle Island Restoration Network, along with the Center for Biological Diversity and the Hawai‘i community group Hui Mälama i Koholäand, represented by the Earthjustice law firm filed suit on behalf to force NMFS to increase protection for the whale by making such a reclassification, as mandated by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (“MMPA”).

NMFS’s own observer program has documented that, each year, the Hawai‘i longline fishery kills or seriously injures an average of more than 4 false killer whales, nearly four times the level of death and injury that NMFS has determined the Hawai‘i population can sustain.

Todd Steiner, Director of Turtle Island Restoration Network said, “We hope that today’s decision reflects a new willingness at NMFS to address the environmental devastation that industrial longline fishing’s non-selective gear inflicts on the ocean’s wildlife species. If we don’t act quickly, we may lose forever not only Hawai‘i’s false killer whales, but also many other marine mammals, turtles and seabirds.” He continued, “We will continue to watchdog the agency to ensure that fisheries are regulated to protect protected species.”

“For nearly six years, NMFS’s scientists have been urging the agency to reclassify the Hawai‘i longline fishery based on its unsustainable slaughter of false killer whales,” said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re pleased that NMFS is finally listening to their own scientists and taking the first important steps towards protecting the whale.”

Longline fishing gear is an indiscriminate form of industrial fishing noted for its “bycatch” problems. Observers have confirmed that the rigs, up to 60 miles long with thousands of hooks, hook and entangle false killer whales, other marine mammals, and a variety of sea turtles and sea birds. Reclassification of the Hawai‘i longline fishery as Category I automatically triggers NMFS’s duty under the MMPA to create and implement plans to reduce the fishery’s killing and wounding of false killer whales and other marine mammals, including the Hawaiian monk seal, humpback whale, sperm whale, blue whale and fin whale.

“The Marine Mammal Protection Act required NMFS to reduce the false killer whale’s fishery related deaths to insignificant levels by April 2001,” noted Earthjustice attorney David Henkin. “Rather than comply with Congress’s command, NMFS spent years bowing to industry pressure and ignoring overwhelming evidence that the Hawai‘i longline fishery is pushing Hawai‘i’s false killer whales to extinction. It is high time for NMFS finally to comply with the law by developing and putting in place a take reduction plan that will ensure the false killer whale’s survival.”

To develop take reduction plans, NMFS is charged with establishing take reduction teams comprised of scientists, fishermen, environmental groups, and other interested and qualified parties. The take reduction teams are then charged with developing draft take reduction plans which NMFS must amend as necessary to comply with the MMPA, approve, and implement. The immediate goal of a take reduction plan is to reduce, within 6 months of its implementation, the incidental mortality or serious injury of marine mammals incidentally taken in the course of commercial fishing operations to levels less than the maximum sustainable removal level. Within five years of implementing the take reduction plan, the goal is to reduce fishery-related incidental mortality or serious injury of marine mammals to insignificant levels approaching a zero mortality and serious injury rate.

“The Hawaiian values of mälama (to care for) and kuleana (to be responsible for) mean that we all have to take part in protecting Hawai‘i’s false killer whales from needless deaths in the longline fishery’s gear,” explained William Aila of Hui Mälama i Koholä. “We encourage all concerned people to pick up the phone and call NMFS and the Hawai‘i congressional delegation to let them know we expect NMFS immediately to fulfill its kuleana by developing and implementing an effective take reduction plan.”